June 30, 2013

For several county schools, July means new leadership

By Christopher Smith

— New principals announced recently:

• Angela Hargis, Westside Middle School

• Carla Maret, New Hope Elementary School

• Doris McLemore, Valley Point Elementary School

• Stanley Stewart, Coahulla Creek High School

• Wanda Storey, Eastbrook Middle School

As some leadership roles shift throughout Whitfield County Schools, including Coahulla Creek High School where new Principal Stanley Stewart promises academic improvement, one thing seems to be in the forefront: improving state accountability scores.

Several of the leadership changes came a little more than a month after state officials released the College and Career Ready Performance Index (CCRPI). The CCRPI evaluates the quality of every school in the state on a 110-point scale based on test scores, graduation rates and financial stewardship, among other benchmarks.

This is the first year CCRPI scores were made public by state officials after they opted out of the Adequate Yearly Process system, part of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Stewart to make Coahulla Creek ‘more academic’

Stewart said his “bottom line” mentality will improve Coahulla Creek.

That’s because, bottom line, a CCRPI score of 53.6 for a tech-driven school that cost taxpayers $43 million to build is wanting, he said. The state average for high schools was 72.6.

“I remember looking at the high school when they were building it in 2011,” he said. “I knew there was a lot of potential in that. It’s a school that offers a great opportunity. I knew it would be a great opportunity to run it. And now I have a chance.”

Stewart is leaving Westside Middle School where he has been an administrator for 12 years.

Getting kids to perform well on Common Core standards in math and language arts will be the focus of his first year, Stewart said. Common Core is a national initiative that tries to unify education standards in each state.

“I will help teachers find a way to reach as many kids as possible,” he said. “We’ll be hitting the standards. We will hit the nail on the head and make things more academic.”

Not everyone is convinced federal officials know what’s best for education. Several state Republican leaders voted recently to put pressure on state leaders to drop Common Core because they say its too rigid and gives Washington too much control on what students learn.

Stewart said he didn’t necessarily oppose Common Core, adding that he’ll be working hard to do whatever his “bosses” want.

“I have two bosses,” he explained. “The local school board and the (state) Department of Education. I believe what I should do is do what those two people want me to do, while taking care of the kids in the best way possible.

“I think those standards are what my bosses want right now. I think they (standards) teach the things we think prepare students with whatever they decided to do ... until (state officials) do away with Common Core, I will be working to present Coahulla Creek in the best light possible under those standards.”

Stewart said a lot of emphasis was put on technology under former principal Phillip Brown, who resigned in May before the CCRPI scores became public. Superintendent Judy Gilreath said Brown didn’t resign because of the lower than average CCRPI score.

“I think you can excel at both technology and academics without losing one or the other,” Stewart said. “But the CCRPI reflected we need to focus on standards. We will be a data-driven, performance-based school where we benchmark our tests.”

As teachers put emphasis on logging data from testing, it will help administrators better determine where kids need help, Stewart said.

“We will compare different teachers and different strategies to see what is helping students the most,” he said. “I will make sure kids are getting everything they need and are performing well.”

Storey ‘hopes for improvement’ at Eastbrook

Principal Wanda Storey, who came to Eastbrook Middle School as assistant principal three years ago, said she also sees a need to improve CCRPI scores. Eastbrook received a score of 76.4. The state average for middle schools was 81.4.

Replacing an old 1960s building with a new tech-driven school last August cost taxpayers $24 million.

“I think it was a learning year,” Storey said, “especially for those who are a bit older. Some of the younger teachers came in with this new technology and knew how to use it. For those of us who are a little bit grayer, it was interesting to learn all that. It is difficult to go from hardly any technology to having a lot of technology.”

Storey said most teachers have adjusted to the culture shock and that could mean the CCRPI score improves.

She also said she has several ideas on how to improve math and language arts scores, but didn’t want to disclose them publicly until she talks to Gilreath and central office administrators.

“But we’ve already talked about changing the class schedule to focus more on those subjects,” Storey said. “Last year we spent about 55 minutes a day on math and language arts. That will go up to 90 minutes.

“We will also have a zero period: 40-50 minutes focused on enriching students to excel, while catching other students who are struggling. We are working diligently. We do hope for improvement.”

McLemore to get Valley Point ‘going in the right direction’

Principal Doris McLemore, who came to Valley Point Elementary School from Gordon County Schools, said she is also looking closely at CCRPI data to figure out why the school received a score of 65. The elementary school state average was 83.4.

“I really hope to increase the CCRPI scores,” she said. “I have to sit down and go through every bit of that. Math seems to be a weak area and we will hopefully take some baby steps to see improvement each year.”

Asked what steps she plans to take, McLemore said she would need time to transition between school systems before drafting a concrete plan.

“I’ll look closely at our data and look at our weaknesses and put extra support in those areas,” she said. “I am still in the process of figuring out where things are in the building, trying to look through things and familiarize myself with everything.”

She said she has a background as a literacy coach to help students struggling with reading recovery so helping an entire school recover from a “low” CCRPI score should come natural.

“I’m excited to start and get things going in the right direction,” she said.

Maret has ‘high expectations’ for New Hope

While most new principals are looking to improve scores, Principal Carla Maret says the CCRPI score of 81.4 that New Hope Elementary received shows how hard administrators there have worked.

Maret, who was assistant principal at New Hope for several years, is replacing Brinda Clayton who retired earlier this month.

“It’s nice,” Maret said of the school’s CCRPI score. But it’s not something to be content about, she added.

“We have high expectations here,” she said. “And our math scores need to grow. We know that. So that’s where we are going to concentrate. We will divide up our time to support more math in the day. But we are happy to be near the state average (83.4).”

Maret’s high expectations don’t just apply to students and staff.

“(But) for families, too,” she said. “Families hold high expectations for us. We work together, parents and the school, to get the best for the student. This school has always had expectations that were high.

“I plan to continue on the same path we’ve been on. Full speed, in the same direction. I know we have weaknesses in math from our test scores, but we are taking steps to make adjustments.”

Any adjustment to the way things are run requires good leadership, Maret said, adding that she’s learned from the best.

“Mickey McNeill, when he was principal of Murray County High School, loved his job and the community,” Maret said of her time as a student in Murray County Schools. “He was always excited every day and built a great school.

“Dusty Brown, Eastbrook Middle’s vice principal, was also a huge influence on me when I worked there. Just watching him just with the day-to-day operations. His decision-making process. He really believed in distributing leadership. He really let you have ownership. I truly believe the faculty need that. Things are a lot stronger if the faculty is self-motivated in true ownership.”

Hargis takes on ‘great tradition’ at Westside

The key to a good school is “intervention,” Westside Middle School Principal Angela Hargis said.

A former assistant principal at Westside Elementary, Hargis is replacing Stewart as he starts at Coahulla Creek.

“I believe in intervening and intervening early,” she said. “I think students who come in who do not have preschool really need to be addressed by (the) elementary school. Hopefully before they come to middle school. But if it’s here or there, our intervention program is really sharp to address those needs.”

Hargis admits preschool will be harder to get into in the Westside community after the Westside Head Start closes at the end of July. The program was dropped when the Rossville-based Family Resource Agency of North Georgia took a $450,000 cut in its $8 million federally-funded budget in April. Several Head Start officials linked the closing of the facility to automatic federal cuts called sequestration that began in March.

“There wasn’t much the school system could do about that,” Hargis said. “I’m not worried. I feel like Westside is grounded in great tradition and fortunate to have a great staff (at both Westside Middle and Westside Elementary). I think we will continue to keep our test scores up and stay near the state average (81.4).”

Westside Middle received a CCRPI score of 80.5.

“Just like everyone, we will look at the strengths and weakness,” Hargis said. “I know for sure science is clearly an area we want to focus on. Greg Bailey is our assistant principal now. And science is one of his loves. I know we will be able to put together some great professional development to reinforce science down the road.”